"Shooter" [Network slang for a cameraman]
The story of a Freelance Cameraman who's covered wars and most of the major stories for the last 30 years in over 90 countries for all the major international TV networks.
ABC, BBC, CBC, CTV, NBC and CBS.
Crazy things that happened to me during my career.
Got bitten by a poisonous snake in Thailand, got shot at in Beirut, walked into a minefield in Vietnam, took part in an air attack on the Viet Cong, landed in a fighter jet on the aircraft carrier “Coral Sea” Didn’t buy an original painting by Andy Warhol for $100, nearly fell out of an aircraft filming, spent a week on a mountaintop surrounded by the Viet Cong, flew with the Snowbirds air acrobatic team, got threatened by a CIA 2
defector and a million other crazy things that happen to cameramen.
Vietnam, Beirut, Monks, Belfast, Haiti, Prince Charles, Biafra, N.Y Muggings, Brixton Riots, Wine War, Sadat assassination, Margaret Thatcher, Film Stars, Trevor Howard, Frank Sinatra, Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews, Charlton Heston, Robert Morley, Sarah Miles, Roger Moore, not forgetting Charlie Mingus and Willie Nelson. The Mexican Earthquake, Harold Wilson, General Montgomery, Simon Wiesenthal, Major Parker-Bowles, Gun Runners, I.R.A., Rhodesian Rebellion, Peter Jennings, Knowlton Nash, Hollywood, CIA Killer, Presidents, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, The Queen, Prince Philip, Prince Charles, Witch doctors in Ghana, Deported from Kuwait, Christmas at the Savoy, The Royal wedding, Barbara Walters, Fall of Vietnam, 10
Downing Street, Martin Luther King and the Peace Prize, Libya, Falklands war, Desert Storm, Panama, John Diefenbaker. Pierre Trudeau, Roland Mitchner, Lester Pearson.
Barbara Amiel, Andy Warhol. Robert Moses.
By Bob Dutru
Just a story about "A Job" that kept me nervous, excited, slightly off balance most of the time, kept my adrenaline pumping, took me in luxury and squalor to places that I never dreamed that I'd ever go to in my wildest imaginings, gave me the chance to do impossible things that I'd yearned to do all my life, scared the pants off me some of the times, allowed me to meet people ordinary and famous that I loved, loathed and adored, placed me in situations that most people had dreams or nightmares about, gave me an real understanding of other peoples lives and their hopes and kept me sane happy and never bored..
When I was growing up the singer we all worshipped was Frank Sinatra.
He symbolized to us, everything that was American and glamorous, those two things were synonymous in those drab post-war days in England.
We watched him on the screen, never getting the girls and watched him in the newsreels having hundreds of real girls clawing at him for just a touch of his hand..
We fantasized about being him and bought his records by the dozens.
It became a Saturday ritual for myself and my best friend, Gordon Comber to go across to the local record shop and listen to the four records they allowed us to hear before we bought one, then agonize over our selections and then even more excitedly, take our purchases home and play and swap them till they became a scratchy, noisy and a permanent part of our collections.
Between Gordon and myself we had almost every Sinatra record going and as the collection grew so did our idolization. The news that Frank Sinatra was coming to London’s Palladium drove us to a frenzy and we queued for hours clutching our hard earned shillings till we were lucky enough to get tickets.
We sat entranced! Not for us the yelling squealing audience of the New York teenagers,
London’s Sinatra fans knew they were at the feet of a master and behaved so. We walked out in the clamminess of a London night, humming the Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart songs and went home on the underground in a dream of finger clicking and romance.
I watched his popularity slowly wane and finally fade leaving him with only a few loyal fans.
Gordon and I went to a concert one cold damp London night at the small Shepherd’s Bush theater. That night the theater microphone broke down and Frank Sinatra, chilly and lonely in the sparsely occupied, unheated theater invited the few of us that were there down to the two front rows so that we could hear him and warm him with our applause.
The lack of amplification and the cold didn’t matter to us, we were unchanging in our loyalty and to us his voice still held the magic that had thrilled us when we were growing up.
I didn’t see him again till years later. I’d been making a magazine item for the CBC’s “This hour has seven days” on filming abroad and we were on our way back from Rome.
‘Would you like to make a film for Frank Sinatra?’
‘Sure, why not?’
I smiled at the man over my third airline scotch. As a freelance cameraman I’d learnt not to get excited about filming offers, for everyone that materialized, another ten bit the dust in the cold light of the dawn.
I turned to my soundman and idly twisted the card the man had given me before he went back to his seat. Suddenly my eyes focused on the wording.
“Mort Segal”. “Frank Sinatra Enterprises.” “Hollywood.”
I got up hurriedly and went over to him, even after my years of traveling and meeting a lot of the world’s greats, the Sinatra name thrilled me and brought back the magic days of my adolescence..
I went to New York and in the famous theatrical restaurant ‘Sardi’s”
haggled over price, expenses and the length of a making a TV publicity film on the filming of “Von Ryan’s Express” I was a little overawed by my surroundings, famous people’s photographs gazed down at me from the walls and I kept being distracted from the bargaining as I recognized yet another celebrity walking past the table. I think that’s why the film publicity people took me to lunch there, so that they could beat my price down while I was distracted, They were very generous however, they didn’t try too hard to cut my price, for some reason I’d taken their fancy and they were prepared to pay well for my services.
I flew to Milan with my equipment and immediately ran into trouble.
Sinatra Enterprises & 20th Century Fox had suggested I enter Italy via Rome and get help from their agents “Cinecitta” but I’d been to Rome and I wanted to spend a few days in Milan. That was a big mistake, the Italian customs took one look at my big silver camera cases. and shook their heads vigorously. The customs men was adamant, there was no way they was going to allow my camera equipment and the film I’d brought into Italy without a $5000.00 deposit.
‘How about me giving you $500.00 in American Express cheques and I’ll leave my passport with you as security?’
That was almost all I had and the thought of abandoning my passport to an Italian customs man made me break out in a cold sweat but I was getting desperate.
‘No Signor, $5000.00!’ He said adamantly.
I sat gloomily on top of my camera cases on the wrong side of the customs barrier, my visions of becoming a famous Hollywood publicity cameraman rapidly going up in flames.
Finally in desperation I phoned the hotel in Cortina D’Ampezzio where the cast and crew of “Von Ryan’s Express” were staying and eventually found someone who knew why I was there and explained my difficulties.
‘Why didn’t you come in via Rome, we had it all sorted out there?’
Even through the sputtering of the Italian phone system I could detect a note of exasperation in the Californian voice.
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t realize.’ He cut me off,
‘Hang on there for an hour or so and we’ll do something.’
The phone went dead.
The custom officers and I watched the white helicopter drift lazily down in the warm Italian afternoon, it got closer and I made out the words on it’s side. “Sinatra Enterprises”
Everyone seemed to be talking at the top of their voices as I, the assistant director they’d sent, the Italian customs agents and the great packet of money swept through Milan airport watched by an interested crowd. Italian money is extremely large and the equivalent of $5000.00 US
was enormous. I’m sure the crowd thought we’d been caught smuggling currency. Within minutes however, the bond money was stored in the customs safe, receipts, smiles and handshakes were exchanged and we were off to Cortina to meet Sinatra.
Cortina is a dream winter ski resort but now it was summer and 20th Century had hired practically the whole of the fabulous Cortina Palace hotel to house the cast and crew. We were they only one’s there, except for a rather staid English couple who seemed fascinated and appalled at the same time by the film people’s strange antics.
The scenery was fantastic! Towering mountains surrounded our hotel and every morning the cast, crew and myself got on the famous “Von Ryan’s”
train and were trucked up to the mountainous pass where the filming was taking place.
The scene being filmed was when the train had just gone through a tunnel and “Von Ryan’s” men had planted bombs there to derail a pursuing German train.
‘I guess you’d better meet the “Man”.
Sinatra had fully regained his popularity by then and gone on to greater heights. Now he was surrounded by a large group of hangers on who clearly resented the time he gave to me.
We shook hands and that was all!
That was ALL!,
The “wonderful moment” I’d been waiting for and dreamed about all my boyhood years was past and was over in a flash, the group closed around him and swept down the path ignoring me.
The massive cast and crew of a full length Hollywood feature dwarfed my small 16mm Arriflex camera and Swiss Nagra recorder as I filmed the making of an epic.
Fake explosions, menacing German soldiers, falling Styrofoam painted rocks crashed down from the cliffs making me duck and run thinking they were real, much to the amusement of the special effects experts .
It was time to talk to “Mr.” Sinatra again, You had to be very well in to call him Frank and I wasn’t. I fought through the ranks of his hangers-on, ignoring their glares at my impertinence and I addressed the great man.
‘Mr. Sinatra I’d like to do an interview with you about the making of the film so we can lay some of your voice over what I’m shooting.’
He glared at me.
I gulped and went on bravely,
‘So if you can spare 20 minutes, we can sit down and chat with my recorder going and lift bits out to put over the documentary.’
That was the technique we normally used but “Mr. Sinatra” seemed aghast at the suggestion. He pointed an accusing finger at me and fixed me with a reproving glare.
‘That’s not the way to do it FELLA!’
The crowd around him agreed quickly, there was a noisy chorus of disapproving voices and I shrunk smaller and smaller under the combined disapproval of the Sinatra crowd.
He relented for a second.
‘Get the producer to write something out and I’ll read it from cue cards later.’
With that he swept past me without a backwards glance.
I hadn’t realized till then what I’d asked.
Frank Sinatra all his life, had rehearsed every note of every record he’d sung, hundreds and hundreds of times till he got it perfect and my suggestion of doing “something off the cuff” appalled him.
The producer Saul David and I sat down one night and hacked out a script for him to read and I searched around for something to make cue cards from.
I soon found something I thought ideal, there were dozens of large empty brown cardboard boxes on the location site and I ripped a few dozen apart and began writing out the script on them. It was a tedious business, my felt pens kept running out and I kept being distracted by the filming around me.
‘What are you doing?’
Behind me stood an interested crowd including the film’s director and the producer.
‘I’m making the cue cards for Mr. Sinatra.’
I was anxious to get on, I still had loads to do.
There was a shocked silence and a drawing in of breath.
‘You can’t expect Mr. Sinatra to read from those!’
I took the day off from filming and borrowed the Sinatra helicopter and flew back to Milan, enjoyed a good lunch and a great bottle of “Amorone”
red wine which cost a bomb so I quickly put it on down on my expenses, while meanwhile, one of the film’s script assistant scoured Milan’s art shops for large white cue cards, felt pencils and stencils, so the lettering would be neat,
Feeling much better and fortified by the wine, I flew back to Cortina.
Wiser now to the ways of Hollywood, I had no intention of spending hours on my knees stenciling the long script. I wanted to get on with filming.
I went into one of the large conference rooms in the hotel where there were swarms of attractive female “gofers’ who seemed to be doing nothing constructive except looking pretty and hoping someone would notice them and give them a part in the picture and I held up the famous script and an large stack of cue cards, felt tipped pens and stencils and said firmly.
‘Mr. Sinatra wants this written out as soon as possible!’
I passed out pens, cards and stencils to one and all, confident that no one there would dare dispute the “Royal” command and check if Sinatra had actually made it.
The next day I collected the beautifully prepared, gleaming white cards.
The girls had excelled themselves and they put my brown shabby cardboard attempts to shame.
We carried the cue cards up every day to the location and down again at night, it took three days before I managed to catch the great man’s eye.
‘I’ve got those cue cards ready, Mr. Sinatra, so when you have a moment.’
I held an example up proudly, they were really beautiful.
‘I’ve changed my mind, throw them over the f....... cliff !’
The star was in a bad mood, I’d caught him with a “Jack Daniel’s”
hangover and this was the wrong time to ask for favors.
They were too lovely to destroy,
I thought of all those hours the nice young women had spent on their pretty knees writing the cue cards out.
‘I’ll keep them around for a few days in case your not too busy another day.’
The star’s finger was accusatory, it pointed at the cue cards and then swung dramatically to the cliff edge.
‘I said throw them over the damned cliff !’
So one by one, the shining, gleaming cue cards shimmered sadly down over the beautiful landscape till they were all gone, dotted far below on the slopes of the Italian Alps.
Trevor Howard relented and he and I spent a glorious afternoon drinking wine on the side of the mountain, recording him talking about the film which gave me everything I needed, then a chat with the director Mark Robson, gave me some more and I soon had enough for a voice track to go with the sound effects.. even though I didn’t have Frank Sinatra’s voice.
I borrowed the great man’s helicopter once again, I was getting daring now and got the smoothest helicopter shots I’d ever made. The helicopter blades had been especially “trimmed” to ensure a comfortable ride for the star and the scene below of the filming looked peaceful and tranquil, showing off the Italian Dolomites in all their beauty as we swooped and glided above.
I never spoke to Sinatra again, he’d been so annoyed when I’d questioned him about the disposal of the cue cards that I thought it wise to stay out of his way, ...........Especially as he was paying me.
The film looked good and we edited it for a week and then got New York’s approval for a final cut which was a success and my documentary showed on television hundreds of times before the release of “Von’s Ryan’s Express.”
I still think covering wars is much easier 11
!‘Thump!’ British Monkey Society
A large chimpanzee jumped up on my shoulders and gave me a new meaning to the phrase “Monkey on my back”.
We were filming at the London Greenwich headquarters of the ‘British Monkey Society.’
The scene was like a set of a Fellini film. The living room of the quiet suburban villa was a blur of people holding and trying to catch excited monkeys.
I reached out quickly to prevent one of the bright lights we’d set up from crashing to the floor. A chimp had leapt on the stand and was waving it back and forth madly like a demented seaman in a storm. My monkey gave my ear an affectionate squeeze as if he was proud of my quickness.
The society had laid out a wonderful spread of food to welcome the film crew from Canada but as we watched monkeys relieving themselves on the food tables and carpets we hastened to tell our hosts that we’d eaten on the way down.
The monkey owners were extremely hospitable, the husband of the house kept plying me with sherry as I filmed. Holding a glass in one hand, a camera in the other with a large monkey on your back that apparently wanted to be a film director, gave the film a real ‘Cinema Verite’look.
I somehow managed to keep filming without breaking down and laughing, I didn’t want to offend them, they thought this was normal.. Every time we moved we had to look down carefully where we placed our feet.
Monkey droppings and urine were everywhere.
I thought they were all slightly mad but the monkey owners seemed to take everything in their stride. I shuddered to think what the room would look like after we’d all left.
A large quiet serious man holding a small gentle looking gorilla on a short chain had been watching us as we filmed. We went over, camera running.
‘Do you let your pet out in your living room?’ We asked.
‘Of course not, ‘ he said scornfully, ‘I wouldn’t dream of it!’
We warmed to him. At last we’d found a sane monkey owner to film.
During the interview with him however I noticed large livid scars all over his muscular arm.
‘What happened to your arm?’
‘That’s Georgina.’ He gave the gorilla a doting pat.
‘She’s always doing that, she likes gouging me.’ He smiled fondly.
‘When the gashes are really bad I go down to the hospital and get them to sew them up and give me a rabies shot.’ He laughed.
‘I tell them it was a dog that did it.’
Meanwhile in the living room things were hotting up. My soundman made a mad dive across the room as one of our lights crashed downwards towards an old woman sitting on the sofa. Her leg was propped up on the coffee table in a cast and she looked horrified as our blazing light fell towards her. The white hot film light stopped inches from her face as the soundman caught it just it in time. The old lady was the mother of our hostess and seemed to regard the mad goings on around her as normal but she obviously drew the line at having our film lights fall on her.
There was a loud scream, we turned hurriedly. Our hostess was clutching her face, blood streaming from her cheek. The woman was hysterical as a monkey leapt off her and jumped up on the curtains, one hand clutching the material while the other clawed fiercely at all of us. The monkey kept spitting furiously as he swung there and it took several of the owners to calm everything down.
Funnily enough they seemed more worried about calming the monkey than the woman.
Finally after several more sherries everything was back to “normal”
They’d mopped the blood off our hostess and she was calm again.
We had got more than enough film to make a good item and were all anxious to get out of there and have a drink at a pub without monkeys around us.
‘You can’t go without seeing Johnny.’ Our hostess now fully recovered from her ordeal, smiled winningly at our reporter. He hastily looked at his watch.
‘We really must go.’ She shook her head.
‘I won’t hear of it.’
The woman was firm and after all we were her guests and she’d given us a very entertaining magazine item. Cameras and recorders in hand we all trooped upstairs to meet her favorite.
The bedroom had wooden bars nailed across the door, inside the room a small forlorn lonely gorilla sat glumly in the corner. Obviously it would have 13
loved to be downstairs with all its pals. The woman shoved our reporter towards the bars,
‘Stand close and Johnny will come and shake your hand.’
Unwillingly our reporter got close to the bars, it was obviously the woman’s party piece and she was determined we’d film it.
‘Johnny, come and meet the nice man from Canada.’
I never even saw it move!
A second later our gallant colleague was clutching a swelling eye, that before our eyes was rapidly turning black. Johnny had shown his displeasure at not being included in the group by punching him in the eye or maybe he just didn’t like TV reporters.
It was a glorious end to the day but somehow our reporter didn’t appreciate it.
How I started as a Cinematographer
For me I guess it all started when I fell in love.
Like most adolescent boys in post war Britain, I was an avid cinemagoer.
I had my heroes and more important, my heroines.
I shuddered at the evils of Jean Kent and Margaret Lockwood but that special warm secret part of my heart was reserved for the cool loveliness of the beautiful Patricia Roc.
The mother of my best friend Ian was loosely connected to the British film Industry and to get us out of the way during our school holidays, she managed to get us occasional odd jobs as “extras”
In those days extras were called by the more glamorous name of “Crowd Artistes.” To two sixteen years old boys the chance to be a part of the film world was wonderful, we’d get up at the crack of dawn to stumble on the first underground train out to the studios and watch eagerly, the bewildering and exciting goings on of the film people.
We were made up with thick greasepaint, while they argued and waved light meters and threw tantrums, we had smelly wigs stuck on our heads as their discussion grew more heated, words like “Kliegs” “Cookaloo’s” “High key” that meant nothing to us were thrown around freely. We emerged from
“make up” with side-whiskers on our face that itched madly, while all around us the technical side sulkily complained to all who would listen ‘that it couldn’t be done.’
Then we were shoved in the background amid cardboard cutouts of people that filled in the spaces between us ‘live and paid’ members of the
We were the lowest of the low in the film hierarchy but we didn’t know it and thrived on it. The money that they paid Ian and I at the end of the day seemed enormous, an added bonus for doing something we loved and would have done without pay.
My friend Ian and I flaunted our new status as film actors to our teen age friends and they watched us enviously as we spent our earnings on Sinatra records and loud ties.
At that time the British film industry was thriving. A series of quotas for domestically produced films had loosened the tight grip of the American 15
studios and allowed the fledgling British film industry to stretch it’s wings and make a few good but mostly awful films.
We wandered around the film sets making a complete nuisance of ourselves, getting in the way of lighting technicians as they moved the lights to new positions, hiding between the large wooden “Flat’s” happily banging away with the carpenter’s tools we’d found behind the set, while distraught technicians in sound booths; about to record a take; picked up the noise we were making and frantically called for silence.
One day we got a ‘call’ to work on a film called ‘Holiday Camp.’
When Ian and I reached the studio that morning I found out to my delight the star of the film was my dream woman, Patricia Roc. The scene we were filming that day was supposed to be on a coach carrying the “campers” on their way to the holiday camp.
The “Coach” had no front or top to simplify it’s lighting and was fastened to a wooden frame that could be rocked to stimulate motion. I was placed four seats behind Patricia Roc’s seat.
In those days I wore those ugly English ‘National health’ glasses to combat my shortsightedness.
I squinted through them and saw to my to my disappointment, Patricia Roc’s seat was filled by her ‘Stand In’. Breathlessly I waited for Miss Roc’s arrival, at last I was about to see my dream woman in reality.
“Get that dammed kid’s glasses off, they’re reflecting like mad! ’
Through my romantic daydreams I became aware of an assistant director standing angrily in front of me demanding I take off my glasses.
Flushing madly at being picked out I put them in my pocket.
A second later the lovely Patricia Roc with all her entourage of hairdressers and makeup girls shimmered onto the set and was ushered into her seat.
All I could see of the star however was a cloudy exotic blur! I craned my neck and screwed up my eyes in vain, her image refused to get any clearer.
‘Cameras ready for a take! ’
The lordly British “Lighting Cameraman” nodded to his assistant and silence fell. This was my chance, I slipped on my glasses, edging myself to a better position to see the star.
‘Cut! ’ The cameraman snapped angrily,
‘I’m getting reflections all over the place! ’
I quickly shoved my glasses back in my pocket and sank lower in my seat. Filming was suspended for several minutes as the lights were moved.
Finally the cameraman was satisfied and we settled down for a “Take” Out came my glasses once more and I moved into once again position to see Miss Roc.
‘Cut Damn it!’
This time he really was furious, his director was getting impatient. my glasses were off in a flash and although the cameraman, crew and Director glared suspiciously at us they couldn’t see anything that was causing the reflections into the lens.. We all stared innocently back. None of my fellow
“Crowd Artistes” had seen my antics and put the delay down to the cameraman’s artistic temperament.
The third time they saw me, I still hadn’t seen my ‘Dream woman’ and had got careless and desperate, I’d craned forward right into full view of the Director and been caught.
My glasses were still flashing madly as the film crew encircled me.
‘Get him off the dammed set!’
I was surrounded by irate film technicians and assistant directors. I heard a faint feminine giggle coming from four seats ahead of me as I was yanked out of my seat and rushed off the set but I was too embarrassed to turn and look back.
I never saw Patricia Roc but that day I too determined to become a cameraman.
By the way ….Years later Patricia Roc married a French cameraman.
(This was my first war.)
I was sitting in the Four Seasons hotel in downtown Toronto waiting for word to go to S. America. Bill Cunningham of CBC’s “Newsmagazine came in and sat down next to me.
‘Bob,’ he said, ‘how’d you like to go to Vietnam with me tomorrow?’
I hesitated and told him about the S. American trip I was waiting on.
‘never mind that, your not booked yet are you?’ I shook my head. ‘You’ll enjoy this a lot better, Vietnam’s marvelous,’ he said earnestly, ’it’s like a Peter Lorre /Sidney Greenstreet movie as soon as you get there they start writing a part for you.’
I’d never been to the Far East before and Saigon was a revelation. Dusty, hot, swarming with people the constant honking of small Renault blue and white taxi’s on Tu Do street , scooters with pretty Vietnamese girls on the backs, the silk panels of their brightly coloured, semi transparent, high collared, “Ao Dais” cascading out into the busy traffic.
Saigon was everything I’d imagined and more.
Old French villas crumbling in the torrid heat, slim svelte Vietnamese woman strolling elegantly by in their “Ao Dai’s” along the broad Avenue Catinat or it’s new name “Tu Do Street.’
Noisy motor scooters, US army jeeps roaring by with marines carrying rifles and looking anxiously around and the more sedate leisurely bicycle
“cylo’’ rickshaws with the scrawny Vietnamese driver pedaling valiantly with his load of an overweight American soldier.
“Tu Do” street was a riot of flowers, beggars, mysterious shops and filled with bars with exotically dressed, smiling bar girls peering out from their depths and begging us to stop and buy them some “Saigon Tea” a name for an expensive rip-off drink that was really just cold tea but was charged 18
to an unsuspecting gullible US soldier at the price of a glass of an expensive champagne. and the girls and the bar owner split the money.
The bar girls eyeing you eagerly as you walked by, trying to guess the size of your wallet and trying to get you to stop and come inside Pat my soundman stopped at a small stall for a few minutes where an old man sat on the pavement drawing mysterious and exotic symbols and came back later and presented me with a colorful scroll that he explained was my horoscope. I put it away and I’m afraid lost it somehow- it was beautiful and had cost him all of 50c.
Each morning we’d present ourselves to the MACV American HQ and hear the “10am Follies” from an army spokesman outlining the wonderful successes of the US forces and how many VC had been killed the previous day and how the war was nearly won. They were so exaggerated that most of us just smiled.
MACV however was helpful to TV crews and gave us an army rank, to allow us a priority on helicopters. Ours were “Colonels” which allowed us to kick off a helicopter anyone below our new rank and take his space except the wounded, so that we could cover the war, more important, get out of a precarious spot when things got nasty. .
We flew out to cover jungle patrols dressed in our new sharp Saigon made Safari jackets and wearing special combat boots with a steel insole that our new Vietnamese “Fixer” had bought for us in the local black-market
You could get any bit of US military equipment on the Saigon streets for a price and even the hard done by, bewildered US troops bought things that they weren’t issued with as it was faster than waiting for an army issue.
We walked warily as we followed the patrols in the jungle. The steel insole was hopefully to prevent a sharpened “punji stick” penetrating your shoe, a particularly nasty Vietcong booby trap that was smeared with human excrement and meant the loss of a foot.
We’d film during the sweaty day, get some good war “footage” and then thankfully get on a Saigon bound helicopter and go back to the luxuries of the old French colonial city, shower, change and then go out and have a splendid meal at one of the many wonderful French restaurants that Saigon boasted and share a few bottles of French wine before getting ready for the next days filming.
It was a crazy way to cover a war. Each day we’d have breakfast on the rooftop of the Caravelle hotel, look casually at the puff of explosions in the jungle that surrounded Saigon, eat our mangoes, sip a last cup of lime flavored tea and then go and get my camera and Pat’s tape recorder and take a taxi to Saigon’s Ton Son Nut airport and after checking what battles were going on or what patrols the US army were sending out, we’d choose one and go and fly out and join the war ignoring the lures and bright lights of Saigon for a while. ….Mad!
For journalists there had never been a war like it and it never happed again after Vietnam but as it was my first war I thought it was normal.
‘Would you guys like to film a Special Forces camp on a mountaintop?’
It sounded like a good item for my camera so we readily agreed and set out by helicopter to cover the war from a mountain outpost that morning to a mountaintop straddling the border between Vietnam and Cambodia.
The mountain was called “Nui Ba Den” or “Black Virgin mountain” named as legend had it, after a princess that went up to the temple on it’s top to get a blessing before her marriage and got eaten by a tiger.
Nui Ba Den or Black Virgin Mountain sat in Tay Nihn province bestriding the Cambodian border. The US Special Forces had set up a radio communication relay point on it’s summit ignoring the fact the mountain was alive with Vietcong. It’s steep slopes covered with thick jungle growth, orchids, swarms of monkeys sharing the breadfruit trees with the communist headquarters there established by the Viet Minh during the French colonial days.
Right now there were no tigers on the mountain instead on the top there were a dozen or so Cambodian mercenaries and 7 or 8 American Special forces living in the Temple and tents on a mountain wireless outpost that covered Tay Nihn Province.
We got shot at as we flew came in, rifles blazed through the trees as our helicopter came racing downwards at a sharp fast angle.
“They always do that,” our pilot said contemptuously, ‘they never hit us,’
“Never?” I asked nervously.
“Never!” He said firmly. I felt better.
We filmed all day and as we were getting ready to leave and fly back to Saigon I said one of the silliest things I’d ever said.
‘Why don’t we stay here for a while and live with the Special Forces and film their daily lives?’
I was new to war.
It wasn’t a popular idea with our correspondent who flew back to Saigon that day but our producer and my soundman thought it was an excellent idea and we slept in an old Pagoda on the summit, mines and ammunition under our beds, air strikes continually and every day, blasting the slopes as the Americans tried vainly to dislodge a tenacious enemy.
It did no good. The Vietcong were there to stay. We shared the Pagoda with the handful of friendly Special Forces, slightly further down we were ringed by a company of Vietnamese born Cambodian mercenaries. we stayed there several days and slept in the ancient Temple.
We’d sit with a soldier and let him talk about the war and his home town, saw them making a makeshift shower, filmed them using it, made friends with them ,went outside the and filmed in the jungle not knowing that we were probably watched every minute through the trees.
There were several scary moments, each day at dawn as the mountain cleared of it’s mists a fighter from Saigon flew over to make sure were we all still alive and the base hadn’t been attacked during the night.
In spite of the constant danger of attack it was strangely peaceful as we worked on our documentary,
One night we heard unfamiliar voices coming over the radio informing Saigon not to worry about any noise or explosions they heard on the mountain as we were having a party and letting off fireworks.
Of course it wasn’t us broadcasting but the VC jamming our radios and we spent an uneasy night waiting for an attack that luckily never came.
I soon ran out of beer and unwilling to drink all the troops supplies paid a porter to climb down the mountainside and bring fresh supplies for all of us..
I paid him at least double and drank it happily but didn’t think that he of course had to bring it through the VC lines and it would have been an easy task for them. to poison it.
Thankfully they didn’t and soon it was time to finish the film and fly back to Saigon with our film.
We stopped at a nearby base overnight and I wandered into a field to get a long shot of “The Mountain” in the distance to open our film with.
‘Stand perfectly still’
A voice interrupted my filming,
‘Your right in the middle of a minefield!’
I stood dead still and then we carefully stepped in the footprints we’d made coming it and breathed a sigh of relief when we got out.
We’d been away 10 days and we said goodbye to the friends we’d made and settled in the waiting helicopter for the trip back to Saigon and to it’s French restaurants.
Saigon was just the same when we got back except our favourite waterside restaurant was no more, we’d eaten there most lunchtimes enjoying the magnificent seafood and French wines they stocked.
“Let’s go to lunch.” I said to the crew, ‘how about that floating restaurant we like?’
The “My Cahn” was famous for it’s fish and crabs.
A haunt of Saigon’s rich and famous now journalists and TV crews and our regular meeting place.
Floating there on the side of Saigon’s river it’s long gangplank felt the feet of the new “elite”
Our driver shook his head.
‘Haven’t you heard, Mister Bob? It got blown up about 3 days after you left.’
The bombers had been clever in their destruction, placing four timed bombs, one in the lush plant that was the centerpiece of the busy restaurant,
Another timed to go off 90 seconds later, was hidden beneath the swaying gangplank.
The placing of two other bombs was even more murderous Set on the docks they were timed to explode 20 minutes later.
All Saigon heard the first bomb go off, it’s thunder was the signal for the Capital’s jittery inhabitants to rush to the dockside.
The first there saw the injured appear, white face and blood covered, drunkenly stumbling out of the flaming restaurant, making for the booby trapped gangplank.
They saw a sight that was unforgettable, a South Vietnamese General looked unbelievingly at the end of his elbow, his arm ended there in a mass of white tendrils as his blood spurted like a gusher ruining his immaculate uniform.
A second later the general and the rest of those on the gangplank disintegrated in the second bomb’s blast. Bit’s of mutilated flesh and a spray of blood flew through the air across Saigon’s riverside spraying the horrified waiting crowd, covering them with a fine spray of red and warm sticky scraps of torn flesh..
The wails of the ambulances screamed towards the dockside, drowning the peaceful Vietnamese siesta, bringing shopkeepers from behind their shuttered storefronts to join the swelling crowd. The police threw up a temporary gangplank , the sight that greeted them when they entered the slowly sinking restaurant was ghastly. Waiters and Generals were mixed together in the final democracy of death.
Journalists and military advisors had met for their final briefings. chairs, tables overturned, the contents of the extravagant lunches dumped haphazardly over the dead and injured as if a waiter.. all the waiters had slipped covering their customers with the seafood. Lobsters mixed with hands, A man lay quietly with an ornamented fish covering his face, it’s decoration horribly marred by the customer’s sightless eyes that peered through the brightly coloured garnish.
Then the world erupted again behind them with two horrendous explosions as the bombs in the crowd went off.
The ambulances were busy all afternoon. It took six hours to remove the carnage of the dockside explosions.
I looked at the crew and shuddered. We’d eaten there almost every day, if we hadn’t gone to the mountain we’d almost certainly been caught in the bombing.
Saigon was just as dangerous as the “boondogs”.
Soon however it was time go as it was with all films and we flew to HongKong, spent a few days there , shipped the film to Toronto and I flew home via London to see my father and then went back to Canada and watched the broadcast of “The Mountain”
It had turned out to be an excellent documentary and was well written up in the papers.
John Kenneth Galbraith.
Galbraith had written a book about his old birthplace, Dutton, Ontario called “The Scotch” in which he mentioned that there had been quite a bit of intermarriage between people.
We took him back to Dutton and set up our camera in a local bell hall with several very vocal locals and bought them glasses of beer and asked them what they’d thought of his controversial book, The comments came fast and furious
“He had no right to put that in a book!’.
“He’s a bastard however famous he is!”
And the best.
‘I’d kill the bugger if I ever met him!’
At that moment our producer ushered in Kennedy’s White House tall seven foot advisor.
The atmosphere changed.
The group was awed at the sight of him.
There were no more comments about how much they hated his book or what they’d do to him if they ever met him.
“Sit here Sir!’
‘Move up Bill and make room for Mr. Galbraith, he’s an important person.
Our camera rolled happily.
‘Would you like a beer Mr. Galbraith?
“Here Joe get Mr. Galbraith a beer.
Galbraith grinned and took it in his stride, he’d faced worse when Kennedy sent him down south to help integrate the universities.
It was time for me to go even though I didn’t relish it.
It seemed that every cameraman in London had faced the dangers of Beirut except me so I asked Carolyn my wife if she minded and she looked at me unhappily.
“If you feel you must Bob,’
‘I think I must, everyone else has gone.’
I reluctantly told ABC News London desk that next time they wanted a cameraman to go to the battle zone I’d volunteer.
‘Great!’ The London assignment editor said quickly,
‘How about going tomorrow, Bob?’
ABC gave me a great soundman/editor to team up with, he had the broadest Australian accent I’d ever heard.
‘What’s your name chum.?’ I asked.
‘Vladamir Lipinski.’ I grinned, it sounded just like a typical Aussie name.
The next morning Vlad and I hitched a ride to Tel Aviv on a chartered Lear jet with my old friend, ABC’s anchor, Peter Jennings.
Peter was doing “World News Tonight” in the “gardens of Gethsemane”
and I and Vlad were to shoot it and feed his newscast to New York that night.
I spent the day renting every portable light in Israel to light the Gardens for the news. We got to the location two hours before the live newscast and spent the time setting the camera up for the feed and arguing with New York’s satellite control technicians who wanted me to leave the lights on all the time so that they could fiddle with their video settings. I jealously guarded every second of the portable light’s brief 20 minute battery life in spite of their protests.
I had horrible visions of that night’s main ABC’s news getting darker and darker and finally going black right in the middle of the newscast.
That night after finishing the news feed successfully without drifting into darkness, Vladimar and I got ready to fly into the Lebanon the next morning. I’d run out of passport photo’s, a real crime as a news cameraman, we used hundreds during a normal year, handing them out to various authorities around the world to stick on the press passes we were issued with.
We were leaving early in the morning for Beirut and I enlisted the aid of one of ABC’s Israeli drivers to find a photographer open at 5am. We’d been having a last fling in Tel Aviv the night before leaving for Beirut and the next morning when we finally unearthed an Arab passport photographer my eyes were suffering the effects of too much wine and too little sleep.
‘Bang!’ the biggest Floodlight in the world exploded into light as he aimed it at me from a distance of only 2 feet.
‘Do you really need all that light?’ I said weakly.
My eyes were like narrow slits, my face a grimace, burning in the hot light while he focused, I gave up arguing, time was of the essence, the photo’s were dreadful when he developed them and I wanted 50 but it didn’t matter.
I scrambled aboard Peter’s plane with seconds to spare after pouring money into the photographer’s grasping hand every time he told me he couldn’t possibly finish in time.
Beirut was divided into two camps by the infamous “Green line”. On one side, the West, were the Muslims and the famous Commodore Hotel where ABC had it’s bureau and in the East, where we were staying, was the Christian side. The Israeli’s had invaded Lebanon a few days ago and there were guns and mines and booby traps everywhere.
Vladimir and I spent the next day going through check points, explaining to everyone, the reason we didn’t have passes was that we had just arrived and were on our way to get them. Israeli, Christian Falange, Muslim, Druse, Shiites, I forget exactly how many times we went through the various check points. I kept asking the driver,
‘Who are these?’
The gunman looked the same to me, camouflaged, loaded with guns and grenades all looking sinister and extremely dangerous as they waved their guns and rocket launchers in our faces.
We filled out form after form allowing me to operate in each area, my passport photo’s were doled out like playing cards, I began to wonder if 50
was really enough, everyone wanted three or four and the stack got smaller.
The next day we braved the “Green Line” Our Lebanese drivers were skilled at the niceties of war, revving their engines as machine guns spluttered and rockets tore across the dividing no man’s land, they’d somehow learnt to count the shells and the spasmodic firing of heavy artillery, waiting till the optimum moment before flooring the accelerator and racing us across.
They laughed when we asked them how they knew exactly when to go,
‘It’s easy, of course you can’t count the snipers, those you just have to trust to luck and Allah!’ Full of shiny new press passes, we reported to our executive producer for our first days assignment, laconically he passed across a fax from ABC News, New York. It said simply.
‘We’re tired of all that long distance stuff you’ve been sending us, get us some “Bang Bangs” with the bullets coming down the center of the lens!’
He grinned and said.
‘Take a good driver, Bob, and don’t get killed guys.’ and then he turned back to his phone.
We were both nervous, it was Vladimir’s first war and I could see his face getting more apprehensive with every kilometer as we closed on the deserted, shelled “No man’s land.”
I said cheerfully,
‘Don’t worry Mate, ‘
‘We’ll just get a few shots and then go and have a nice lunch and a bottle of wine.’ I said confidently
The driver crunched our car through shattered glass and broken bricks.
Around the corner we suddenly came upon the ideal location, an extremely tall, shell, bullet-marked apartment building.
We were surrounded by Israeli soldiers. I pulled out my new gleaming Israeli pass, we’d been warned to keep each one in a different pocket and remember where each was, a month ago one of the crews had been badly beaten up and narrowly escaped death for pulling out a wrong one a showing it to a rival group.
‘I’m from ABC News and I’d like to go to the top of the building and film from there. I said confidently.’
The Israeli captain seemed singularly unimpressed by the powerful US
Network and my camera, perhaps he thought the war was more important than either of us.
‘Sorry, no way!’ He said emphatically.
The building had turned out to be an Israeli artillery observation post and they weren’t at all keen to let us in. I argued for a few minutes and then asked him if I could speak to his superior officer, A dapper Israeli Colonel appeared, for some reason he also didn’t seem impressed by us. I decided it was time to be a little nasty.
‘There’s a lot of talk that you are shelling refugee camps, is that why you won’t let us up?’
In my business, One had learnt to push sometimes to get what you needed..
I t wasn’t a wise decision to say that, a second later we were out on our ear, wondering what hit us and what to do next as we looked nervously at the silent menacing “No Mans Land”.
‘Lets drive in for a couple of Clicks and see what we can get.’
The driver and Vlad looked nervously at me.